Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the past several weeks, Republicans in Congress have been consumed with a planned Health and Human Services mandate, which beginning August 1 will require employers to offer a health insurance plan that covers birth control for women, without a copayment—unless the employer is a church or house of worship, in which case it is exempt. If there is an institution run by a religious outfit but not a church—say, Georgetown University—the insurer must cover the cost of contraception coverage, not the employer.
This seemingly arcane policy change—a vast majority of the country uses birth control, and religious outfits can pretty much escape the mandate anyway—has nevertheless been the subject of two hearings in the House of Representatives and one floor debate and vote in the Senate.
During these debates, Republicans rigorously denied they have any problem with contraception or female sexuality, Rush Limbaugh’s comments notwithstanding. Instead they’ve used florid language about religious freedom, the founding fathers, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.—heck, even Josef Stalin—and a wide variety of other crazy, nonsensical arguments.
Here are the eleven nuttiest:
“This debate strikes to the heart of the freedoms we as Americans enjoy. Why do we have these freedoms? We have them because in 1776 the people decided they were sick and tired of the King telling them they had to do this and they had to do that and had totally wiped out a number of freedoms they had.” —Idaho Senator James Risch, March 1
“[This] is about who we are as Americans and renewing our commitment to the principles upon which this nation was founded. This debate comes down to the legacy left behind by our founding fathers and over 200 years of American history.” —New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, March 1
“Now, I would like to know what legal authority he relies upon that the president could ever order anyone to offer a service or an item for free. He has no such authority. This is not the Soviet Union; this is the United States of America.” —Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns, March 1
“I don’t normally call from Joseph Stalin, but today he said something appropriate, about liberty. He said America is a like a healthy body, and it’s resistance is three-fold, it’s patriotism, it’s morality, it’s spiritual life. If we can undermine these three areas, America will collapse from within. I would encourage our church, I would encourage Congress, I would encourage our administration to fight back strongly against what Stalin understood.” —Michigan Representative Tim Walberg, February 16
“We heard from religious leaders whose positions might not be popular, like MLK’s was [sic] not so long ago.” —California Representative Darrell Issa, February 16
“If the government mandated everything to have positive health benefits, it could possibly mandate that everyone drink red wine for heart health even though it violates the religious beliefs of Muslims and Mormons. And it could mandate that everyone eat shellfish even though that violates the religious beliefs of Jews. And it could mandate gym memberships because it is widely accepted that exercise is beneficial.” —Asma Uddin, an attorney for the Becket Fund, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, February 28
“I am asking you why should I care what they think in California? In fact, what—why should I care about the conclusions that have been brought forward by the Supreme Court?” —Iowa Representative Steve King, February 28
“Do you see a slippery slope when the government comes in and says we are making this decision in the name of public health, that pork is better for you than beef and therefore, we, the government, mandate pork upon the community instead of beef?” —Texas Representative Louie Gohmert, February 28
“I find it instructive in what is supposed to be a legal hearing on the free exercise of religion, the Democrats offer a health care professional as their witness.” —South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy, February 28
“Gandhi said in matters of conscience the law of the majority has no place. Rabbi, in this case, where you have no faith-specific objections to what is in HHS—isn’t that essentially why you’re here? That all of us as minorities must stand together to say there but for us, go someone else the next time?” —California Representative Darrell Issa, February 28
“These guys [the assembled religious leaders] are ready to go to jail because they won’t violate their religious beliefs, and the hospitals and the schools are going to close, which means government is going to get bigger because they are going to have to fill the void that is left when you guys quit doing it. And maybe that’s what they wanted all along.” —South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy, incorrectly asserting HHS would jail people for failing to offer contraceptive coverage, and then wondering if it’s all a big conspiracy, February 16
Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jay Carney took a beating on the issue of Afghanistan, following a spate of bad news from the war zone—including more American deaths at the hands of supposed Afghan allies. He was peppered with questions from reporters about the viability, purpose and waning public support for the American mission there. No less than ten times, Carney repeated some version of this justification:
What the President did when he reviewed U.S. policy in Afghanistan was insist that we focus our attention on what our absolute goals in the country should be, and prioritize them. And he made clear that the number-one priority, the reason why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan in the first place, is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda. It was, after all, al Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, that launched the attacks against the United States on September 11th, 2001.
Finally, ABC’s Jake Tapper asked Carney when was “the last time US troops in Afghanistan killed anybody associated with Al Qaeda.” Carney didn’t have an answer, and referred Tapper to the Defense Department and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
I queried those agencies Tuesday and got an answer today. According to a Defense Department spokesman, the most recent operation that killed an Al Qaeda fighter was in April 2011—ten months ago. However, there was an “Al Qaeda foreign fighter” captured near Kabul in May 2011, and an “Al Qaeda facilitator” captured in the Paktiya province on January 30 of this year.
By comparison, there have been 466 coalition fatalities since April 2011.
Given Carney’s repeated insistence that the “number one” purpose of the American mission is to “disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat” Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and given the ongoing sacrifices the country is making to achieve that goal, it’s very important to keep these benchmarks in mind. It is surprising Carney wasn’t aware of them, or didn’t disclose them—though, perhaps it’s not.
Maine Senator Olympia Snowe stunned the political world yesterday by announcing that she would not seek re-election this fall, despite a significant fundraising advantage and never receiving less than 60 percent of the vote in any Senate race. Snowe’s decision opens a huge opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat in a blue-ish state.
In her announcement, Snowe—a noted moderate—cited the “partisanship of recent years in the Senate” to explain why she was suddenly throwing in the towel. Given that her staff didn’t even know about her retirement until the day she announced it, I have a hunch there’s something else at play here, but that’s neither here nor there—the loss of a moderate, who blames nasty partisanship for her demise, is catnip for much of the Beltway press. Many of them stick rigidly to the doctrine of false balance, in which both sides of the political spectrum are always equally to blame for… everything, and that includes the recent gridlock in Congress. Snowe’s retirement has given them a great opportunity to wisely tut-tut about how broken Washington has become, and say that everyone just needs to get along.
Politico’s Jonathan Allen published a piece that epitomizes this genre today. The article, “The center crumbles,” laments that “Congress can’t find the middle ground because no one’s willing and able to stand there anymore."
For some like Snowe, the question is, why bother? The prospect of running hard to win another term—particularly a six-year Senate term—is less and less attractive for folks who came to Washington to make things happen only to find out there’s no common ground to get things done, only partisan point-scoring that leads to paralyzed politics.…
But it’s harder and harder for members of Congress to get along in their own caucuses, to prevent or win primary challenges and to excite their party base in general elections if they find too much in common with the other side.
What Allen's piece, and many similar analyses, fail to point out is that only one political party has become more extreme and more partisan in recent years: the GOP. Political science professor Keith Poole conducted a comprehensive study that plotted every Congressional vote from 1879 to 2011 along ideological axes, and found that around 1980, Republicans veered sharply right, with no corresponding leftward shift from Democrats. In 2011, the partisan Republican (the “90 percent” Republican) is almost at the limit of conservative ideology, while the partisan Democrat is much further from the leftward extreme—and has barely shifted in the past thirty years. This analysis shows what we can see to be anecdotally true every day: while the Republicans are lockstep behind privatizing Medicare, there isn’t even close to Democratic consensus that Medicare should be extended to everyone.
Snowe’s record clearly reveals a senator fighting battles against Republican extremism. Here are the main reasons she’s known as a moderate: in 2001, she forced Republicans to trim George W. Bush’s tax cut package from $1.7 trillion to $1.35 trillion. She was one of only three Republicans in the Senate to vote for the stimulus plan in 2009, and one of three to vote for the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in 2010. She supported the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal that same year, and earlier in her career refused to vote to impeach Bill Clinton. She also has a long record of pro-choice votes, including recent opposition to the Blunt Amendment on contraception.
In each of these cases, Snowe was clearly bucking the Republican Party’s social and pro-corporate extremism. But Allen doesn’t explicitly note that. Instead, he provides a Democratic counter-example: that many conservative Blue Dog Democrats lost their seats in the midterm elections. He adds, “Even the big stuff Democrats and Republicans swear they want to do—cutting the deficit, reforming Social Security and Medicare—forget it.”
You might note that “reforming” Social Security and Medicare are generally goals held by right and driven by business-friendly agendas. When it comes to so-called “centrist” Democrats as defined by the Beltway press, it’s almost always people who share those goals. The Blue Dogs are motivated mainly by a pro-corporate agenda, as they oppose regulation and favor lower taxes and small government programs. (Ari Berman details the pro-corporate nature of many “centrist” Democrats here).
Take, for example, another senator who retired recently—this time a Democrat—and blamed partisanship. Indiana Senator Evan Bayh declared, upon announcing his retirement last year, that there was “too much partisanship and not enough progress, too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving” in Congress. Bayh’s post-retirement plans included the possibility that he might teach at a university, help a charity or “cure a disease, or do something else worthwhile for society.”
He’s since taken a heck of a detour to those noble goals. Within months of retirement from the Senate, Bayh joined a private equity firm, Apollo Global Management, along with McGuire Woods LLP, a powerful Washington lobbying group that engages on climate change and financial sector issues for “well-heeled” clients. He then agreed to help the US Chamber of Commerce in a public anti-regulatory push against, among other things, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (For good measure, he also signed a contract with Fox News to provide commentary).
When Republicans are deemed moderate by the Beltway press, it’s generally because they buck Republican extremism, much of which ultimately serves corporate interests. Democrats are characterized as moderates when they hew close to the corporate agenda. You’ll notice a common denominator here—big money and business interests are skewing the democratic process. Washington is indeed broken, and it won’t be solved by Republicans and Democrats sitting next to each other at the State of the Union address.
UPDATE: Rachel Maddow did a terrific segment on this last night, pointing out that not only has Congress moved right in recent decades, but so too has the presidency and the Supreme Court.
Also, speaking of ulterior motivations for Snowe to drop her re-election bid, the Sunlight Foundation wonders whether a lawsuit targeting Snowe's husband's involvement in a for-profit education company might have scared her out of the race.
There’s been a lot of bad news coming from Afghanistan in recent weeks—deep anti-American sentiment finally overflowed into violence when it was revealed American soldiers burned copies of the Koran at Bagram airbase on February 20. More than thirty people have been killed in revenge attacks, and 11,000 Afghans took to the streets in protest this weekend.
Two American troops were killed inside the Afghan Interior Ministry last week, also in response to the Koran burning, leading to the unprecedented removal of all military personnel from the government ministries. Given that this is the government the United States is trying to build up, it’s a troubling development to say the least, as is the fact that ten of the last fifty-eight coalition deaths have come at the hands of America’s Afghan partners.
Much to its credit, the White House press corps put press secretary Jay Carney through the wringer on the war yesterday—he was peppered through most of his daily briefing with smart, tough questions about the recent violence and the overall viability of the US strategy in Afghanistan. The very first question cut right to the chase:
Q: We've heard a lot over the last day or so about how the United States is taking the long view in the war in Afghanistan and the need to stay focused on defeating Al Qaeda. But I'm wondering how you explain to the average American who has seen this war go on for ten years and is ready for troops to come home—how do explain it when the people that we're training turn their guns on us, or US officers in a secure Afghan Interior building are shot dead? How do you explain why it's working?
Carney responded that the United States will stick to its current strategy, which is to “to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda.” He repeated some variation of that line over ten times, as reporters refused to get off the topic. Finally, Jake Tapper of ABC News got around to asking Carney the obvious question—one that the press secretary couldn’t actually answer:
Q: When is the last time US troops in Afghanistan killed anybody associated with Al Qaeda?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would refer you to ISAF and the Defense Department for that. I don't have that information. It is certainly clear that, because of our efforts in the Af-Pak region, if you will—which is the region covered by the overall strategy that the President put into place—that we have aggressively pursued, with significant success, Al Qaeda's leadership. And I think that everyone knows, of course, of the Osama bin Laden mission. But there have been, as you know because you cover this closely, numerous other instances of successful implementation of this policy, which has resulted in significantly depleting the numbers of Al Qaeda’s leadership. And it is because of the president’s policy, which includes allowing for space for the Afghan government as this transition takes place to the security lead—that gives us the capacity to implement the policy, which, again, is focused on Al Qaeda.
(Note, of course, that bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.) I contacted the Defense Department to follow up—it was unable to give me an answer right away, but I’ll update this post when I hear back. Press accounts don’t turn up any recent Al Qaeda deaths there, however, and Tapper smartly noted statements by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said earlier this year that there were probably no more than 100 Al Qaeda fighters in all of Afghanistan.
As the situation continues to deteriorate there, it’s important to remember that the White House isn’t just feeling pressure to cut losses and get out now—there’s also pressure from those who believe the recent failures mean the United States should stay in Afghanistan even longer.
On Fox News Sunday this weekend, Mitt Romney said that the recent violence is an “extraordinary admission of failure” in the White House plan to wind down the war by 2014. Romney may never reach the White House, but even if he doesn’t, senior military officials are reportedly pressing Obama to pause or lessen the drawdown over concerns that Pakistan is becoming too unstable.
The war has largely receded from view in recent months as the American economy sputtered and the media’s attention was captured by a presidential primary. But as the past two weeks have shown, events on the ground might thrust the war back into public prominence—and either way, there are fierce debates going on that could dramatically shorten or lengthen the war.
If you want to see the full White House briefing yesterday, it’s here:
Among the many lines of attack campaign finance reformers have opened on the post–Citizens United world of unlimited, dark corporate money, one of the most interesting involves shareholder disclosure. The argument is that if corporations are spending massive sums from their own coffers to influence politics, then shareholders should at least know what the money is going towards. In his opinion in Citizens United, Justice Anthony Kennedy erroneously assumed this was already law—but it isn’t.
Corporations benefit from secret giving because it obscures the true goals of many seemingly earnest political advertisements; an ad criticizing a candidate for supporting health care reform would seem much less convincing people knew for certain it was funded by Aetna. If shareholders were able to discover what kind of electioneering the corporation purchased, that would push corporate spending into the daylight.
Public Citizen has been urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies to disclose political donations, and today it picked up an important endorsement—from a current SEC commissioner. At an “SEC Speaks” event in Washington today, commissioner Luis Aguilar said that “investors are not receiving adequate disclosure, and as the investor’s advocate, the commission should act swiftly to rectify the situation.”
Lisa Gilbert, who’s been leading the push from Public Citizen, immediately praised the remarks. “Corporations generate massive profits, in part because of investments by their shareholders,” she said. “And corporations’ new license to spend—a gift in the form of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—could have real consequences to investors.”
If the White House is serious about campaign finance reform—as it claimed to be when announcing it would seek Super PAC donations—it could get behind this push. Similarly, another way to force companies into disclosure would be to issue a federal rule that any corporation with a government contract must reveal its political funding efforts. The administration drafted such a rule in the spring, but Obama has yet to sign it.
Twice in four days, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has quite bizarrely praised the size of trees in Michigan, which is holding its primary next week. “A little history—I was born and raised here. I love the state. It seems right here. Trees are the right height,” he said on Tuesday. This morning in Detroit, he repeated the line: “This feels good, being back in Michigan,” Romney said. “You know, the trees are the right height.”
The political world seems flummoxed at the quote, on both the left and right. So I called the Arboriculture Society of Michigan for some guidance. They are the foremost tree group in Michigan—a coalition of arborists, foresters, professional tree climbers and academics “interested in all aspects of arboriculture and the health and care of Michigan’s trees.”
Unfortunately, they were not much help. “I’m not sure what it means, to be honest with you,” said Nancy Carpenter, ASM’s executive director. “They vary. It depends on the tree; the white pine goes over 100 feet tall. There are others that don’t grow as tall.”
Carpenter did note, however, that she thought she heard the line before, “when I was a little girl, and [Romney’s] father was governor.” She added that her group will not be making any presidential endorsements.
Appearing on WCBS in New York this morning, Representative Peter King offered a strong defense of NYPD’s spying on mosques and Muslim businesses and student groups in several states. Criticism of the recently revealed program has intensified in recent days, but King said he was proud of the police department.
“[Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly and the NYPD should get a medal for what they are doing,” he said. “This is good police work. If you are going after radical Muslims you don’t go to Ben’s Kosher Deli.”
This is perhaps not surprising coming from the man who held highly controversial Capitol Hill hearings into Muslim Americans last year, which many people saw as essentially profiling by public relations; his colleague, Representative Keith Ellison invoked the specter of Joe McCarthy in criticizing King’s efforts and said they served to “vilify” Muslims.
But, alas, King announced last week that he would hold more hearings into domestic radicalization among Muslim Americans in the coming year. “The series of radicalization hearings I convened last March has been very productive,” King said in a statement. “I will definitely continue the hearings in 2012.”
This is a good time to flag a recent study by Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina and member of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. His comprehensive examination of crime statistics found that terrorism-related incidents by Muslim Americans has declined markedly, and that Muslim-Americans represent “a minuscule threat to public safety.” He wrote:
The limited scale of Muslim-American terrorism in 2011 runs counter to the fears that many Americans shared in the days and months after 9/11, that domestic Muslim American terrorism would escalate. The spike in terrorism cases in 2009 renewed these concerns, as have repeated warnings from U.S. government officials about a possible surge in homegrown Islamic terrorism. The predicted surge has not materialized.
Repeated alerts by government officials maybe issued as a precaution, even when the underlying threat is uncertain. Officials may be concerned about how they would look if an attack did take place and subsequent investigations showed that officials had failed to warn the public. But a byproduct of these alerts is a sense of heightened tension that is out of proportion to the actual number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.
If King calls Kurzman to testify at his hearings I’ll eat my hat, but it’s possible Democrats on the committee could arrange for his appearance. He would provide a substantive counterweight to King’s typically anecdote-driven hysteria. Last week the FBI foiled a plot in which a Moroccan man wanted to bomb the US Capitol—you can bet King will give that episode a prominent role at his hearings.
Last week, Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee held a now famous hearing on contraception, in which the first panel consisted of five men and no women. Issa denied a request by committee Democrats to hear from Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown student who was going to talk about being denied access to birth control by the Jesuit university; she had a powerful story, for example, about a friend who needed birth control to control ovarian cysts, was unable to get it and ended up losing an ovary.
Issa said that Fluke was not “appropriate and qualified” as a witness, but Democrats felt otherwise and held an unofficial hearing this morning on Capitol Hill that featured testimony exclusively from Fluke.
Fluke spoke about the need for women to have access to birth control and repeatedly illustrated the tragedy of denial:
This is the message that not requiring coverage of contraception sends: a woman’s reproductive healthcare isn’t a necessity, isn’t a priority. One student told us that she knew the birth control wasn’t covered, and she assumed that’s how Georgetown's insurance handled all of women's sexual healthcare, so when she was raped, she didn’t go to the doctor even to be examined or tested for sexually transmitted infections because she thought insurance wasn’t going to cover something like that, something related to a woman’s reproductive health. As one student put it, “This policy communicates to female students that our school doesn’t understand our needs.” These are not feelings that male fellow students experience. And they’re not burdens that male students must shoulder.
You can watch the entire hearing here. It’s about an hour long, and alternately informative, personal and sad:
One of my favorite facts about campaign finance, which illustrates both the fecklessness of the Federal Election Commission and the free-for-all of the current terrain, is that the FEC has not issued one single rule on Super PACs. Ever. Spending by outside groups has quadrupled since the 2006 election, and Super PACs are leading the way in a post-–Citizens United world of unrestrained corporate donations—and yet the government body charged with electoral fairness hasn’t had a thing to say about it. (You might actually call this one of my least favorite facts about campaign finance).
Progressive groups have already forced the White House to explain why it hasn’t forced new members onto the FEC, which could break the current stalemate and force some action on Super PACS and other vehicles for campaign finance. (That explanation is forthcoming; the groups mounted a successful petition drive on the White House online outreach page).
Now, Senate Democrats are adding pressure on the FEC. On Tuesday, ten Democrats plus Bernie Sanders, an independent, sent the FEC a letter urging it to enact broad disclosure rules for Super PACs, and to force more disclaimers on advertisements about who is funding them.
“While the First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech, we must be sure that the corporate structure does not obscure the speaker,” the senators wrote. “This is why we believe that the identity of individual contributors should also be disclosed when they make substantial donations to organizations financing independent expenditures.”
The letter was signed by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Al Franken (MN), Jeff Merkley (OR), Tom Udall (NM), Sherrod Brown (OH), Michael Bennet (CO), Chuck Schumer (NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Barbara Boxer (CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Sanders.
Seven of those senators sent a letter last week to the Internal Revenue Service, asking to investigate—or admit that it is already investigating—the political activities of tax-exempt 501(C)(4) groups. These nonprofits are forbidden from engaging predominantly in “electioneering” activities, and it’s hard to see how groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS isn’t doing exactly that.
This is important pressure coming from the Hill onto the FEC—and if the White House is serious about campaign finance reform, as it claimed to be last month when announcing that administration officials would support a Democratic Super PAC, then it should join the calls by these Senators for more disclosure and tighter rules.
While we’re on the subject, Stephen Colbert had a delicious roasting of the administration for doing a 180 on Super PACs last night:
A basic Republican attack on President Obama is shaping up for the 2012 election: the national debt is too high, the unemployment rate is too high, and gas prices are too high.
Two of these three issues find a home in the Keystone XL pipeline—the boilerplate Republican argument is that the White House not only killed a project that could provide jobs in construction and maintenance, but also exacerbated higher gas prices by denying the markets more oil. Rick Santorum charged in Ohio yesterday that Obama’s “radical environmentalist policies” were threatening the economic recovery and driving up fuel prices. Mitt Romney has been sounding similar notes.
Unfortunately, there’s an all-too-typical problem with the Republican line on Keystone: it’s completely unsupported by the facts. On the jobs front, the Cornell Global Labor Institute estimates the project would create only 2,500 to 4,650 short-term construction jobs—not the “hundreds of thousands” of jobs claimed by House Speaker John Boehner.
Similarly, gas prices would not decrease if Keystone was built—they’d likely go up in many areas of the country. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and leader of the movement to stop the pipeline, took to The Hill today to debunk this myth:
This is nonsense on many fronts, most of all because the price is oil is fundamentally set on global markets. As the Congressional Research Service pointed out in late January, when there’s trouble in places like the Straits of Hormuz, the price of oil goes up for everyone and Keystone will make no difference, since the oil market is “globally integrated’; it’s not like Exxon offers a home-country discount to American motorists.
But in the case of the Keystone pipeline, it turns out there’s a special twist. At the moment, there’s an oversupply of tarsands crude in the Midwest, which has depressed gas prices there. If the pipeline gets built so that crude can easily be sent overseas, that excess will immediately disappear and gas prices for 15 states across the middle of the country will suddenly rise. Says who? Says the companies trying to build the thing. Transcanada Pipeline’s rationale for investors, and their testimony to Canadian officials, included precisely this point: removing the “oversupply’ and the resulting “price discount” would raise their returns by $2 to $4 billion a year.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, that would translate to about $3 for an average 15-gallon fill-up—as independent energy economist Philip Verleger put it, with Keystone the industry “will be able to use its market power to raise the heavy crude price to Midwest refiners above the level that would prevail in a competitive market.”
This is point worth repeating again and again. Fox News is already revving up its outrage machine over gas prices, and aiming it directly at the White House. If gas is over $4 per gallon through most of the summer, we’ll be hearing “Keystone” on the stump almost every day.